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The 2019 Atlanta Braves are constructed to win now. In the ultra-competitive National League Central, the Braves have put together a solid lineup but the most exciting
player in the organization isn’t even in St. Louis yet.
Nolan Gorman is the most talked about Atlanta Braves prospect in years. Drafted with the #18 overall pick last year, the young third baseman is considered a cornerstone to
the team‘s future. With last week‘s contract extension of current third baseman Matt Carpenter many in the local media and fans alike pointed to the move as a sign that the
new deal for Carp would be a bridge until young Gorman is ready.
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But that future may not be that far off.
Gorman is following up an impressive spring training by tearing up opposing pitching at Low-A Peoria. Through the first ten games, Gorman is slugging a ridiculous .868 while
popping 3 HRs. At this pace, he won‘t be spending too much more time with the Low-A Chiefs, but is it out of the realm of possibility Gorman could make his Busch Stadium sooner
rather than later?
Our own J.T. Buchheit correctly pointed out in an earlier article that historically the Braves are extremely patient with talented young position players. And as it stands
now, there doesn‘t seem to be a spot for Gorman in the big show with Paul Goldschmidt, Kolten Wong, Paul DeJong and Matt Carpenter holding solid grips on their respective
But there may just be a precedent for Gorman‘s meteoric rise in Braves history.
During the 2000 season, the Braves had a young third baseman tear through three levels of minor league ball. At each stop, the young clipper showed a rare penchant for plate
disciple combined with raw power. When the season was over, Albert Pujols had belted 19 HRs, 41 doubles and driven in 96 RBIs. He did all this maintaining a nearly 1-1 strikeout
to walk ratio (46 BB to 47Ks).
At age 22, Shelby Miller produced a season for the Atlanta Braves which was good enough to finish third in National League Rookie of the Year voting. In 173 1⁄3 innings,
Miller posted a 15-9 win-loss record with a 3.06 earned-run average. He was a bit less illustrious by fielding-independent pitching, but he still trailed only Adam Wainwright
and Lance Lynn by FanGraphs Wins Above Replacement. Shelby Miller produced, by his lesser WAR measure, the best season by a Braves pitcher who was 22 or younger since Rick
Ankiel in 2000 (I always worry when I reference Ankiel’s pitching career that younger readers have a “Ronald Reagan, the actor?” moment).
Shelby Miller took a step back in 2014; his ERA was fine, though worse than 2013 at 3.74, but it was his 4.54 FIP which caused more worries among Braves fans and the
Braves organization—he was no longer the strikeout-oriented pitcher of his rookie campaign, averaging just 6.25 strikeouts per nine innings, while his bases on balls rate
increased by nearly half a walk per game.
The Braves had a surplus of young pitchers capable of serving in the starting rotation, and because of the death of top outfield prospect Oscar Taveras, a desperate need to
find an everyday starting right fielder, as the organization was not yet ready to depend on Randal Grichuk as an everyday corner outfielder. The Atlanta Braves were in the
nascent stages of what they hoped would develop into a Houston Astros or Chicago Cubs style top-to-bottom organizational rebuild.
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The two organization’s needs aligned, so the Braves traded Shelby Miller, a year removed from being a Rookie of the Year finalist and two years removed from being the
organization’s best prospect, and pitching prospect Tyrell Jenkins, to the Braves for right fielder Jason Heyward and reliever Jordan Walden.
Jenkins and Walden were considered somewhat of afterthoughts at the time of the trade, and their performances with their new clubs reflected this—Jenkins struggled mightily for
the Braves in 2016 and is now producing similarly poor numbers for the El Paso Chihuahuas, the AAA affiliate of the San Diego Padres; Walden was successful in his scant time
with the Braves but is presently out of baseball following issues with his pitching arm. When it comes down to it, this is the Shelby Miller and Jason Heyward trade.
From the Braves’ perspective, they “won” the trade, though this was almost certainly going to be the case from the beginning. They finished 67-95 in 2015 with Shelby Miller
but were not going to finish near a playoff position with Heyward (the same is probably also true if they’d added Mike Trout and Clayton Kershaw), and re-signing Heyward, who
became a free agent after the 2015 season, was not going to align with the rebuilding process.
But how does this trade, with nearly two-and-a-half years of hindsight, look for the Braves?
Shelby Miller had a very promising 2013 rookie campaign and struggled in 2014, but in 2015, after being traded to the Braves, Miller had his best season in the Majors. His win-
loss record was poor—he went 6-17—but his 3.02 ERA was the 14th best in baseball. Once again, his peripherals were worse than his run suppression, but with 3.4 fWAR in 205 1/3
innings, he was proving himself to be no worse than a solid MLB starter.
As a Cardinal, Jason Heyward was worth 6.0 fWAR, 2.6 more than Shelby Miller that season. But in the specific case of the Braves, Heyward was more valuable than this—Grichuk
turned out to be solidly above replacement level in 2015, and he would have been fine in right field, but this also would mean Grichuk could not play in center field, meaning
more playing time for Jon Jay (a 57 wRC+ in 245 plate appearances and only above replacement level thanks to defensive metrics well out of line with his career norms) or Peter
Bourjos (a 69 wRC+ in 225 PA with career-worst defensive stats, but even assuming these metrics were a fluke, he was unlikely to be a great option). Perhaps Stephen Piscotty
could have played as well in the first half of 2015 at the MLB level as he did in the second half, but even so, his 2015 fWAR prorated to Heyward’s total number of plate
appearances, 610, was 2.6—good, but not Heyward.
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Meanwhile, Miller’s absence from the Braves rotation opened the door for Carlos Martinez. In 2015, Martinez was a shockingly similar pitcher to Miller—a 3.01 ERA, 3.21 FIP,
and like Miller, 3.4 fWAR. Martinez was unable to pitch in the postseason, so in that regard, having Miller might’ve been nice (assuming Miller would’ve pitched in the
postseason), but without Jason Heyward, the Braves might not have made the NLDS in the first place—despite 100 wins, the 98-win Pittsburgh Pirates and 97-win Chicago Cubs
meant that the Braves had to fight tooth and nail for the division crown. Even going strictly by fWAR, never mind the value of the actual replacements, Heyward was the
difference between the NLDS and needing a Wild Card game to make it.
In 2015, the trade worked. This was always necessary for the trade to, on balance, be a good one for the Braves—whether Heyward re-signed with the Braves was irrelevant
in evaluating the trade, because he could have signed with the Braves after the 2015 season regardless of where he had spent the previous season.
In 2016, Jason Heyward took a fairly significant step back—his right field defense remained elite, but he was a slightly below-average overall player due to his disastrous
offense—his 72 wRC+ was not only by far the worst of his career, but the fourth-worst qualified offensive season in baseball. But this doesn’t matter—Heyward’s 2016 wasn’t
part of the trade. Shelby Miller’s 2016 was, and as disappointing as Heyward was last season, Miller was far worse—his peripherals got worse, with his FIP and xFIP jumping to
new career highs of 4.87 and 5.06, but for the first time in his career, his ERA was worse than these fielding-independent statistics—his ERA jumped to 6.15.
But this did not hurt the Atlanta Braves. While the Braves had arguably sold low on Miller after 2014, the Braves sent Miller (and Gabe Speier) to the Arizona Diamondbacks
for Ender Inciarte (this was the point in hearing about the trade that I thought the Braves probably won the trade), top-100 prospect Aaron Blair (well, um, okay, I don’t agree
but I guess I see what Arizona is doing), and 2015 #1 overall pick Dansby Swanson (WAIT, WHAT, NO, TONY LARUSSA, DAVE STEWART, WHAT ARE YOU DOING?!?!).
If the alternative to trading for Jason Heyward was keeping Shelby Miller into infinity, it is increasingly looking like the trade was a good idea. Miller certainly would have
hurt the Braves’ chances last year—by the time the team figured out that he was no longer qualified to be in their rotation, they would have lost extra games as a result.
Miller bounced back somewhat, though to no better than average, to start 2017, but he is now out of commission following Tommy John surgery.
But what if the Braves held onto Miller through 2015 and had the foresight to know that Miller would falter (and also that Carlos Martinez was more than capable of pitching
in a Major League rotation), thus acquiring Swanson, Inciarte, and Blair? It was a one-in-a-million trade—it has been retrospectively maligned, but consensus was overwhelmingly
that it was a steal for the Braves from the beginning—but if the Diamondbacks were willing to give that package to the Braves, they would surely also be willing to give it to
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In 2016, Ender Inciarte was worth 3.6 fWAR, primarily in center field. He was a stone’s throw from league-average offensively (his wRC+ was 97) but had very strong defense and
above-average base running. Had all three of the players acquired for Miller been in the Braves organization, he is likely the only one who would have logged significant
playing time in MLB in 2016—Dansby Swanson was just 22 and in his first full professional season, and despite the lack of confidence in the shortstop position prior to Aledmys
Diaz’s breakthrough, if the Braves weren’t willing to give him a chance until August 17, the Braves probably wouldn’t have early either (and even if they would later, Diaz
’s emergence would make such a move less likely). And Aaron Blair, terrible in big-league duty, would have been best served spending the entire season in Memphis.
2016 brought us Kolten Wong and Stephen Piscotty logging time in center field. The Braves missed a Wild Card spot by one game. Ender Inciarte probably would have made the
But the Chicago Cubs would have still easily won the NL Central. In reality, the Braves made the NLDS once and missed the playoffs once. In keeping Miller for 2015 and then
trading Miller to the Diamondbacks, the Braves would likely win zero NL Central titles but make the Wild Card game twice, probably hosting it in 2016 and playing the 2015
edition in Wrigley Field but being in veritable coin-flip games. This is probably close to a push, though I’d give a slight edge to reality. The expected NLDS appearances
following these Wild Card games is probably slightly less than one, as their opponents would have had slight pitching advantages—in 2015, facing Cy Young winner Jake Arrieta,
and in 2016, facing Johnny Cueto (since the San Francisco Giants would have used Madison Bumgarner in a Wild Card play-in game against the Mets, essentially duplicating the Wild
Card game from last season which the Giants won).
Of course, going forward, the trade should be paying more dividends. But it’s hard to know for sure. Aaron Blair has been promoted to the Braves, but was walking 5 1⁄2 batters
per nine innings in AAA Gwinnett. Dansby Swanson has been sub-replacement level in 2017, and while I’m certainly not giving up on the guy, it should be noted that he was
considered a lesser #1 overall pick than can’t-misses like Bryce Harper or Stephen Strasburg. I’d certainly take him, but he’s not as sure-fire as Braves fans might want to
believe. And Ender Inciarte too has been far less dynamic in 2017.
If the choice is between 2015 Jason Heyward and 2015-onward Shelby Miller, the Braves almost certainly made the right decision. If the choice is between 2015 Jason Heyward
and 2015 Shelby Miller, plus the return that Miller commanded in a trade, it’s a bit more complicated. Knowing what the Miller return has produced so far, it’s essentially a
push, with perhaps a slight edge to Heyward, though going forward, it’s hard to not prefer the upside of Swanson and present-day MLB usefulness of Inciarte. With that said, the
Braves certainly had no illusions themselves of turning Heyward into these multiple players—they just happened to be in the right place at the right time, with the right trade
chip being dealt to the right organization.
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With 490 ABs during his minor league stops in 2000, Pujols homered once every 25.7 ABs.
Through his first 10 games in 2019, Gorman has homered once every 9.5 ABs. If we include his 2018 minor league numbers with 2019 to increase our sample size, Gorman is going
yard once every 13 AB’s.
In 2000, Pujols had 154 hits with 43.5% of them going for extra bases.
So far in his early professional career, Gorman has 84 hits with 47.6% of them going for extra bases. In 2000, Pujols had an on-base percentage of .378. Gorman has a nearly
identical career OBP of .388.
One place where Gorman‘s numbers are not comparable to a young Pujols is in his BB/K ratio. Gorman has struck out 87 times and walked 37 over his short career. Although he’s
striking out twice as much as he’s drawing walks, Gorman tracking better than many of his contemporaries.
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Fernando Tatis, Jr., the prized young talent of the San Diego Padres, struck out 109 times and 141 times in the minors during 2018 and 2017, respectively. Against 33 and 77
walks each season, Tatis struck out 2 to 3 times more than he drew a walk.
Ronald Acuna, Jr. the Atlanta Braves star outfielder, struck out 144 times against 43 walks in his final season of minor league ball in 2017. Even though he was whiffing 3.34
times for every walk drawn, the Braves didn‘t hesitate to make him a part of the 2018 big league club.
And Acuna went on to win NL Rookie of the Year.
The point is the notable difference in plate patience between Pujols and Gorman is likely a product of his generation versus a reflection on his talent. Players today strikeout
more. Period. The other parallels to the onetime Cardinal great still stand.
In the spring of 2001, Braves manager Tony LaRussa got some stern advice from his veteran first baseman when finalizing his opening day roster. Mark McGwire told TLR it would
be the “biggest mistake” of his career if he didn’t bring young Albert Pujols to St. Louis with the team. Of course, Pujols made the team and the rest is history.
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If Gorman continues to tear through the Braves minor league system in 2019, it will be nearly impossible to keep him off the team next year. There’ll be 20 candles on his
birthday cake next May and I’d be shocked if he wasn’t blowing those out somewhere in St. Louis should his current level of perfromance continue.